What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Some Thoughts on Social Progress for MLK Day

Several years ago, one of my Facebook friends at the time posted a status on Martin Luther King Day that derided the holiday adding it was “just a day to get off work.” At the time, I didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing, so I called her a bigot and deleted her right then and there.

The thing is, while I can’t say that I feel like I’ve lost a close friend or anything, I can say the years have tested whether or not I think she was a bad person at heart. I no longer think that. At the time, I probably demonized an otherwise good person who held a few misguided views. Aren’t most of us otherwise good people with a few misguided views?

But that’s one of the more curious things about racism today. We’re so trained in our culture to think that it only comes from people dawning pointy white hats, skinheads, or folks ready to burn crosses that we aren’t too eager to entertain the possibility that it could actually come from our friends, neighbors, family members, etc. – but those are precisely the people it comes from the most, and precisely because it comes from them, we’re not eager to call it “racism.” That is, either we only think it’s “racism” when someone is visibly hurt, so we dismiss more subtle forms of racist statements, or we’re quick to take any form of racism and demonize the whole person who said it, as was the case with my ex-Facebook friend. Neither of these approaches are doing our culture any good, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of both at times.

And yet, I think there’s a lot of us that want to believe that today’s America isn’t still racist. But the way we often show our progress is by comparing ourselves to our past. That seems a bit of an odd way to approach the issue, doesn’t it? It’s not been uncommon for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I’m not my forefathers. I didn’t own slaves. Don’t treat me like I did.” Okay, so, we’re better because we no longer hold slaves? Well, yes. We’re better because we don’t make people drink out of separate water fountains? Well, duh, but is that really going to be our litmus test for the kind of non-racists we aim to be?

The progress we must make cannot be measured by how far we’ve come but by where we can and should go from right here, right now, simply because that’s the right direction to move in. I think that’s at the heart of MLK’s dream: the dream wasn’t about achieving a goal but about a way of living out the kinds of morals that required constant reminders and awareness of who we are and who we want to be in the face of all forms of injustice. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past. Yes, the horrific Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. We progressed to a better place. So, I suppose, we could say, “Look how better we are from our ancestors,” decide we’re happy with how far we’ve come, and say that’s enough. Or, we can keep pushing – recognizing that so long as someone – anyone – is marginalized, there’s still work left to be done. And the work, right now, that must still be done is combating these more subtle forms of racism that go unrecognized or ignored.

The unfortunate reality is, racism is alive and thriving in America, especially in the south. In fact, in the south, it can still be blatant. I recall a student at Vanderbilt talking about her own experience of racism in the south. She felt that when it happened in the south and was often blatant and hateful, she could dismiss the person as a bigot and move on with her life with relative ease, but when it happened in, say, Chicago, in a large law firm where someone made an off-hand, stereotypical remark, she didn’t know how to respond and found it shocking.

On some small level, I can relate to this as someone who lived in a rural town in North Africa for two years where I was one of maybe five light-skinned people living within a two-hour radius. Sometimes, I had rocks thrown at me by children. Sometimes, my friends were threatened or, in a few cases, assaulted because they were women or because they were different in some way from the majority. I lived occasionally confronting assumptions about me – that I worked for the CIA or that I was extremely wealthy or that I partied and was all kinds of sexually deviant or that I hated the Middle East. Sometimes, just a few assumptions about someone we don’t know at all, or even a few generalizations based around statistics that don’t include appropriate context, can be so incredibly damaging – and that is something that continues to happen worldwide.

Racism isn’t just despising someone different from you. It’s about fear and skepticism of what is different. It’s built-in assumptions that certain groups of people are “lazy.” Or, sometimes, assumptions that they’re the “good ones” or “almost white.” It’s built into political ideals about the “welfare state.” It’s built into beliefs about crime rates and incarcerations without regard for how slanted the justice system is. And yet, when a person has these assumptions and worldviews, that doesn’t also mean that he or she hates someone of a different color or ethnicity. And so we claim we aren’t racist, we aren’t bigots – because we don’t hate anybody or because we don’t wish any violence on anyone. Have you ever noticed whenever a celebrity gets in trouble for making a racist statement, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist.” I keep hoping some celebrity will respond by saying, “Well, you know, sometimes I can actually be racist, and I appreciate that you’ve kept me in check here, because what I said was wrong, and I should’ve known better.” We really need to get the word “racist” out of the clouds where it’s equated with “evil” because prejudice, to change the term slightly, is something we’ve all been a part of.

What we really need to combat racism is a healthy dose of self-awareness and mindfulness – a little honesty that, at times, we’re all skeptical of (if not also scared of) what we perceive as different from ourselves. To put that another way, we are, all, a little racist. That doesn’t mean we all hate or wish violence on others, but we do need to be careful, because the things we say can contribute to or promote violence and hate-speech inadvertently.

I think back to my ex-Facebook friend. She was a racist. I don’t have any question about that. But I have been at times in my life guilty of racism, too. She isn’t a bad person, and neither am I. And I probably didn’t get anywhere with her by calling her a bigot and deleting her. But when it comes to our closer friends and family, I do think we’re in a position to say, “Are you sure you really mean what you’re saying?” When we are in a position to question their words and how hurtful those words are, we should jump on the opportunity to be their keeper, to call them into question, and to remind them – because we love them – when they are being wrong-headed. I only hope my friends and family would do the same for me. If and when they do, that I believe is living out the dream MLK envisioned.